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Union members demand a voice

This article is over 18 years, 4 months old
New Labour's threat to expel the RMT union for democratising its political fund is creating fury in the run-up to the Convention of the Trade Union Left
Issue 1887

NEW LABOUR was set to plunge itself deeper into crisis this week by expelling the union that first got the Labour Party established a century ago. Its assault on the RMT rail union is creating a storm in the wider trade union movement. Other trade unionists, including the 250,000-strong postal and telecom workers’ Communication Workers Union (CWU) nationally, have rallied in support of the RMT.

One of the CWU’s biggest branches has voted to adopt the policy that led the Labour Party to threaten the RMT with disaffiliation. That boosted delegates to this Friday’s special RMT conference in Glasgow. They have been under intense pressure from Labour officials to abandon the democratic decision they took last July to allow funding for non-Labour socialist candidates.

Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) decided last week that the union was to be summarily expelled from the party this weekend if it did not turn its back on its members’ wishes and toe Blair’s line instead. All the signs at the start of this week were that most RMT delegates were resisting that bullying and had become more determined to stand by last year’s historic decision.

Intimidation from rail bosses, such as refusing delegates time off to attend the conference, has angered RMT members further. Just five delegates voted last year against ‘democratising’ the union’s political fund. The overwhelming majority vote was a reflection of the immense disillusionment of members of the RMT and other unions with New Labour. Following the decision, five RMT branches in Scotland applied for and got executive approval to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). That brought threats from New Labour’s leaders to expel the union unless it promised to endorse every Blairite hack they selected.

Labour deputy general secretary Chris Lennie told the union it had to, among other things, ‘accept the programme, policy and principles of the party’. That has provoked fury inside the RMT. Members see they are being told to abandon their union’s independence and accept tuition fees, wars and whitewash inquiries as the reward for handing over dues to New Labour.

Far from being isolated, the RMT’s stand for its own independence and for political representation for working class people has put it tune with the growing mood at the base of the unions. The national executive of the CWU union last week ‘deplored and condemned’ New Labour’s decision.

The CWU’s Scotland No 2 branch went further last Sunday. It voted for a motion which said that if the RMT is expelled it will make ‘immediate moves to affiliate…to the Scottish Socialist Party as a first step to democratising the political fund of the Communication Workers Union’.

Derek Durkin, the branch secretary of Scotland No 2 branch, told Socialist Worker, ‘We took this decision at a well-attended meeting. There were a couple of card-carrying Labour Party members in the audience and they argued against any move to affiliate to the SSP. But the great majority of those who spoke were for the motion. There is deep anger against the Labour Party for its policies and, in specific, for this attack on the RMT because it has made a democratic decision in line with its members’ views. One speaker made the very good point that the RMT is under threat for giving part of its funds to the SSP yet the Scottish Labour Party is actually in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish executive. That move was made without any discussion with the unions.’

The call to democratise the political fund is growing in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which was savaged by the government during its pay dispute last year. The Kent brigade has submitted a motion to the FBU’s conference in May along the lines of the RMT’s position.

The FBU’s leaders, in common with most top union officials, argue there is no alternative to automatic support for Labour. They want the debate to be simply over whether to remain affiliated to the Labour Party or not. They have ruled out of order many motions calling for democratisation of the political fund.

That allows opponents of change to claim that those who want wider working class political representation by opening up the fund are really about leaving the union unrepresented and isolated. New Labour’s decision not to allow the RMT to control its own funds has left the Blair gang isolated. It has intensified the debate in the unions about whether to construct a socialist opposition to Blair or whether to leave things exactly where they are in the hope of ‘reclaiming the Labour Party’.

That was clear in the build-up to the convention of the trade union left called for this Saturday. There were strong delegations from across the unions and a determination to have that debate. Geoff Martin, the London convenor of Britain’s largest union, Unison, told Socialist Worker:

‘Our region is attending the conference because we are very much up for a debate on how to secure an effective political voice for our members. There are some of us around who think there is still the chance of doing that through the Labour Party, and I’m certainly one of them. There are others who think we should have another voice. It’s vital the left has a common position and is able to advance over the issues that unite us-opposition to war, privatisation and so on. That’s why I defend the right of RMT branches to decide to affiliate to other parties, even though I don’t necessarily agree with it.’

Leader’s attempt to stifle debate

UNION LEADERS who are for no change to the political fund are finding it difficult to resist calls for it to be opened up.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, has sent an astonishing letter to the initiators of this Saturday’s Convention of the Trade Union Left. The letter-to Nick Wrack, national chair of the Socialist Alliance-threatens him with legal action because Unison branches have defied Prentis’s instructions and have sent delegations to the convention.

It goes on, ‘You are now further put on notice that you are to desist from inducing any of Unison’s branches to provide funds to you or in support of the Convention of the Trade Union Left… We also believe that your actions constitute a possible breach of trust. We will require you to repay Unison any sums which you have been paid.’

No Unison branch has broken the union’s rule that means the only political party that can get money is Labour. But many branches are sending delegates to debate the issue of political representation.

Members of Unison’s London Region Committee vigorously rejected the national union’s diktat last week and reaffirmed that it would be officially represented at the convention. Nick Wrack has written to Prentis on behalf of the convention organisers. He says, ‘To the best of my knowledge the Socialist Alliance has not received any money from any Unison branch…I would be extremely grateful if you could elaborate on the basis for threatening legal action…With Unison members facing privatisation, PFI, foundation hospitals…and many more attacks, they may feel that their union dues could be better spent than on obtaining ill thought out legal opinion or taking legal action against a socialist organisation that fights alongside public sector workers in defence of public services.’

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